A Modern ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’
Why in 2022 you should watch a movie made 75 years ago.
This post has one modest purpose, which will seem out of scale with the horror of the latest racist gun massacre, in Buffalo. At the moment I don’t know what a response in scale would be.
Instead I offer a brief mention of a famous and “familiar” but not really current part of American pop culture, which I happened to be watching while the shooting was going on, and which has stayed on my mind.
Also I mean this as a continuation from past posts, listed below1, on the grim sequence of past American gun massacres—racist, antisemitic, or just plain hideous. It is related as well to a review by me that went up this morning in the New York Times, of Phil Klay’s new book, Uncertain Ground.
As I mention in that review, the AR-15 rifle, which was used in this latest massacre as in so many others, grew out of the military’s search for a lightweight weapon that could inflict maximum damage in minimum time.2 The designer of the AR-15, Eugene Stoner, never intended it to be in civilian hands. It is now the most widely owned rifle in the United States.
What is the pop culture reference? It’s to a “social message” movie that was made before I was born.
On Saturday, when the racist gunman in Buffalo was killing his victims, I was out of information range until late at night. Deb and I spent the day on a very long cross-country airline trip and didn’t hear the Buffalo news until hours after it occurred.
After a while on the air journey, I stopped hammering on my computer and checked the inflight films. By chance I decided on a black-and-white movie that I had always “known about” but, as with so many classics, had not bothered actually to see.
It was Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield, which among many other awards won the Oscar for best picture in 1947. It was based on a novel by Laura Z. Hobson, which came out that same year and was a number-one best seller. The movie also won the best director Oscar, for Elia Kazan, and best supporting actress, for Celeste Holm.
Viewed 75 years later, parts of the film seem incredibly dated — which is less surprising when you consider that it was filmed closer in time to Ulysses Grant’s first term in office than to Joe Biden’s. For instance: practically everyone in the movie is smoking; practically none of the visible characters are Black; nearly all of the women are in pre-Mad Men-era roles.
But in its essence it could not have seemed more relevant or of-this-moment.
‘It’s just a horrible mistake!’
The film’s subject is of course antisemitism. It was made just two years after Allied troops fought their way into the Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust. But in the film Nazism and extermination are not even mentioned, as the characters discuss the damage done by anti-Jewish bias. Instead it is about unspoken, “polite” barriers in post-war America: “Restricted” communities, blackballs for social and professional clubs, quotas in hiring and university admissions, jokes and stereotypes about “those people.”
The plot presents Peck’s character, Philip Schuyler Green, as a magazine writer from California newly arrived in New York. He is young but widowed, and he comes to the city with his grade-school age son. His editor wants him to do a big expose on antisemitism, and Green comes up with the idea of presenting himself as Jewish (which he is not) to new people he meets and new places he goes, and then reporting how his life changes.
The title Green chooses for his investigative article, “I Was Jewish for Six Months,” has an ooooffff quality now. But the going-undercover genre was part of his reportorial identity in the film. Green says that for previous articles he had made his way across the country in a jalopy, to write about Dust Bowl migrants, and had taken a job as a coal miner for a series on life underground. (“I didn’t try to dig into a coal miner’s heart. I was a miner.”) A few years after the film was made, this approach was the basis of a real-world literary sensation. In the early 1960s a white writer from Texas named John Howard Griffin intentionally darkened his skin and traveled through the South as a Black man. Griffin’s book Black Like Me had a huge impact in JFK-era America and sold millions of copies worldwide.
For me the starkest moment in Gentleman’s Agreement is a scene where Phil Green must comfort his crying son, Tommy, played by Dean Stockwell. Little Tommy is doing his part to maintain his father’s cover story, telling all his new schoolmates in New York that he is Jewish.
In his Manhattan apartment, Green is having a tense discussion with his Wasp-y recent fiancée, Kathy. She is in on his ruse, but clearly can’t wait until his research is over, so she can tell her friends that the man she will marry is not “really” a Jew. Then Tommy bursts in from the playground, sobbing that other boys were calling him “a dirty Jew” and a “stinking kike.”
“Oh, darling, it's not true,” Kathy says, meaning to comfort him. “It's not true. You're no more Jewish than I am. It's just a horrible mistake.”
Peck looks daggers at her and takes Tommy away. Peck’s role in this film came 15 years before his portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, but there are lots of similarities.
Privately ‘uncomfortable,’ publicly silent
That was the sharpest drama in the film. But the most self-consciously “instructive” moment comes near the end. It is a scene between this same Kathy and the character Dave Goldman, played by John Garfield. Dave is Phil Green’s longtime friend, he is in uniform as a U.S. Army officer, and he is Jewish.
Kathy is asking Dave how she can get Phil—her fiancée, and Dave’s friend—to stop giving her such a hard time about casual antisemitism. After all, she tells Dave, she cringed inside, and deliberately didn’t laugh, when a friend at a fancy dinner party made an antisemitic joke. In a Guardian piece, Peter Bradshaw describes what happens next:
Tearful Kathy had expected Dave to congratulate her on her conservative-minded liberalism simply because she felt bad about it afterwards. Coolly, with a hint of steel, Dave insists she spell out what the joke was and how she failed to make a stand – because every time some nasty crack passes unchallenged, the forces of bigotry gather strength for bigger plans. It’s a great moment for Garfield, and still a rousing scene.
“A man at a dinner table told a story,” Dave says to Kathy, “And the ‘nice’ people at the table didn’t laugh. They even despised him for it. Sure. But they let it pass. And behind that joke is Tommy and those kids.”
The man telling the joke wasn’t the worst of them, Dave says to Kathy. “At least he’s out in the open. But what about the rest of them?” The ones who “disagreed” but didn’t make a fuss?
‘What about the rest of them?’
As applied to this moment:
—Tucker Carlson may be the one cynically whipping up hatred and fear through talk of the “great replacement.” (Why “cynically”? Because anyone who had encountered Carlson in his previous life knows that he is just putting on an act for ratings.) But those who look the other way—think of the ratings!—are just as responsible, from Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch on down.
—Donald Trump is the one endlessly harping about the phony “stolen” election. But every party member who won’t dare challenge him—think of the midterms!—is just as responsible. “They even despise him for it”—as Dave Goldman said about the dinner guests hearing the “kike” joke, and as Republicans from Mitch McConnell on down make clear they feel about Trump. But, like the fancy dinner guests, they make this clear only in private.
—Trumpist candidates for state offices across the nation are promising or threatening to take election results into their own hands in 2024, if they gain power. And every political-handicapping article presenting this as midterm politics-as-usual essentially looks the other way. As Margaret Sullivan eloquently argued here.
You can see where I’m going with this. I don’t need to be as explicit as Laura Z. Hobson or Elia Kazan were 75 years ago.
But watch the movie. The cost for streaming on Amazon and elsewhere seems to be $3.99. Think about the “nice” people who are not saying anything. Then, and now.
Back in the 2016 campaign, I used the term “Vichy Republicans” to describe members of a party deciding to look the other way about Trump. Maybe I’ll start saying “gentlemen” now.
For instance: two from the Barack Obama era, about how as president he responded to the racist gun massacre of Black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, and to the gun massacre of little children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. Or another from Obama’s time, on why many countries have suffered isolated gun massacres but only the U.S. has such an ongoing plague. Or one from the Ronald Reagan era about how America’s most widely owned rifle, the AR-15, was designed to be so lethal, and why its creator thought it should never be in civilian hands.
Here is a passage from my book National Defense, as published in this 1981 Atlantic excerpt. It was about design considerations that went into Eugene Stoner’s AR-15, made for the ArmaLite company. For the record, the AR in the name derives from ArmaLite, not, as many people seem to think, “assault rifle.”
The AR-15 design was the basis for the military’s M-16, which U.S. troops used in Vietnam and thereafter. It was a successor to the heavier M-14. This section described the destructive power of a lighter AR-15-style weapon using smaller bullets:
The rifle combined several advantages. One was the lethal “payoff” that came with its .22-caliber bullets. The smaller, lighter ammunition meant that the rifle could be controlled on automatic fire by the average soldier, because its kick was so much less than the M-14’s. The rifle itself was also lighter than the M-14.
These savings in weight meant that a soldier using the AR-15 could carry almost three times as many rounds as one with the M-14. This promised to eliminate one of the soldier’s fundamental problems in combat: running out of ammunition during a fire fight.